Peter Benchley was working on quite an impressive streak in 1980. Jaws and The Deep, published respectively in 1974 and 1976, became blockbusters of the literary world – but it was their film adaptations (each released in the year following publication) that made Benchley’s name into a household word and catapulted him into the rarefied air of the Crichtons and Ludlums. His hugely anticipated follow-up, 1979’s The Island, crossed Benchley’s familiar ‘seafaring adventure’ template with a bit of fashionable Bermuda Triangle myth-making. Movie rights were a foregone conclusion, and in keeping with the single year, page to screen transition time of his previous books, the film version arrived in 1980.
Journalist Blair Maynard (Michael Caine) travels to an isolated area of the Caribbean with his young son Justin (Jeffrey Frank) to investigate the “missing boat” phenomenon of the Bermuda Triangle. After renting a fishing boat from sodden Brit ex-pat Mr. Windsor (Frank Middlemass), Maynard and his son are captured by a group of pirates. For 300 years, the pirates have been wreaking havoc on the Caribbean, stealing cargo and killing the crews of other ships. Blair is kept alive to perform “husbandly duties” for the wife of the man he killed in the initial attack, while Justin is selected by the pirate leader, Nau (David Warner) to be his son – and continue the bloodline for another 3 centuries.
The biggest problem with THE ISLAND is, ironically, that it doesn’t take liberties with the source material. Fans of the Spielberg film are amazed to pick up the novel Jaws and find a maze of sub-plots and character developments that never made it to the screen (including appearances by the Mafia and an affair between Matt Hooper and Brody’s wife!) Spielberg wisely jettisoned most of Benchley’s extraneous plot machinations and stuck to the core story. It’s also a safe bet that Peter Yates took a rather jaundiced view of The Deep’swarmed-over tale of leery smugglers, and decided not to take the affair very seriously and just film the vacation. Left intact, Benchley’s plots could congeal into a pulpy mess, a problem that ISLAND-director Michael Ritchie exacerbated with his affection for wild tonal shifts. Ritchie showed early promise with some terrific early work in THE CANDIDATE (handling some difficult satirical elements quite well) and the absolutely bonkers PRIME CUT (both 1972), an absurdist gangster shoot-‘em-up starring Lee Marvin and featuring Gene Hackman as a sex slave-running mobster who grinds the bodies of his victims into sausage. Even Ritchie’s THE BAD NEWS BEARS – a purported family comedy – features children drinking and cursing in what probably seems shockingly natural and non-moralistic to audiences today. But Ritchie’s touch here makes the film that much harder to categorize; the pirate attacks are quite vicious, with one moment of outrageous gore during the opening scene that would be more at home in CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. These scenes can clash uncomfortably with the Boy’s Own adventure scenario that develops after Maynard and his son are taken prisoner by the pirates.
The plot turns on the notion that the pirate leader Nau would be able to turn Justin against his father in the space of what seems like only a few days. Caine’s character may be an absentee father, but it strains credibility to accept the Jim Jones-style brainwashing of Justin. But by this point you’re either onboard for the trip or sitting back on the dock laughing your pirate ass off, anyway. Casting strong British actors like Warner and Middlemass help – Warner in particular has an amazing ability to preserve his dignity amidst projects far more dubious than this. But it’s Caine’s shoulders that the film rests on.
1980 was an interesting time in the career of Michael Caine; his matinee idol days behind him, Caine may well have suffered some sort of middle-age breakdown in the late 70s and began leveraging his celebrity with seemingly dozens of ‘for the paycheck’ jobs (would you like to start with BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE and THE SWARM and work forward, or with MR. DESTINY and JAWS: THE REVENGE and work back?) Unlike most actors, who phone in it when working on material that they deem beneath them, Caine went overboard in the opposite direction and chewed the scenery until there was nothing left but the sprocket holes. Now, THE ISLAND doesn’t present the opportunities for over-indulgence that DRESSED TO KILL does, and his presence helps ground the story in a measure of believability (though there are moments, like when he’s forced to hold up a piece of fruit for a target practice session, where you can almost see him thinking about the house he’s going to buy with his salary). It’s a solid performance that gets is unfairly maligned because of where it falls on his résumé.
If you say that you enjoyed this film, you’d better be prepared with a good reason. Look in any edition of those Leonard Maltin movie guides and you’ll rarely see this film rate more than 1½ stars, and I can guarantee you that the interns Maltin has chained up in the basement haven’t ever seen a frame of it. It’s a very handsome production that gets tremendous value out if its Caribbean locations. The cast is also peppered with familiar faces adding some welcome grace notes; Zakes Mokae (THE SERPENT AND THE RAINBOW) and Brad Sullivan (unforgettable as the filthy Mo Wanchuk in SLAP SHOT) turn up early on and have a fun scene together, and look for the familiar cherubic face of Dudley Sutton (THE DEVILS) among the pirates. Ritchie also throws in some nice touches as well; a Holiday Inn towel is kept as precious booty, while valuable cocaine is carelessly strewn on the floor giving a nice sketch of Pirate priorities without resorting to those awful “What has your modern world to offer us?” speeches.
Assessing the true worth of THE ISLAND has been impossible, as the film hasn’t been seen in its original Panavision ratio since its theatrical engagement. Universal owns the film and has shown no interest in a US DVD release, but for those with all-region/PAL capable players Koch has released a beautiful, 16×9 enhanced edition in Germany that should earn the film a few more fans. The disc features English and German audio tracks, but unlike some European releases, the German subtitles are not forced when the English audio is selected. The extras consist of the German trailer (under the title Freibeuter Des Todes) and – one of the more interesting items we’ve seen in a while – the 8mm filmstrip version! We vividly remember the ads for these in the back of Fangoria, back in the 70s and early 80s and it’s fascinating to finally see one (particularly for the choices made in editing – the 8mm versions never ran over a half hour).
THE ISLAND (1980). Directed by Michael Ritchie. Screenplay by Peter Benchley, based on his novel. Cast: Michael Caine, David Warner, Angela Punch McGregor, Frank Middlemass, Don Henderson, Dudley Sutton, Colin Jeavons, Zakes Mokae.